Greater performance efficiencies were the key drivers which led the Oakes family to install a robotic feeding system at their Cheshire farm.
Robotic technology is nothing new for Anthony Oakes, who farms alongside his parents, Alan and Caroline at Stublach Farm, near Middlewich, Cheshire.
Two Lely A4 machines have been used to milk the high lactation portion of the 270-cow pedigree Holstein herd since 2013 and while Mr Oakes says he is keen to go fully robotic on the milking side of the operation in the future, the family decided to prioritise automated feeding.
Mr Oakes explains: “The importance of planning for the future must not be underestimated.
“My parents have worked hard all their lives to create a business with strong foundations on which I aim to build, as are the hopes for every family farm.
“On recognising that a significant proportion of my time was spent on routine daily feeding, operating and maintaining machinery, we decided to install the robotic feeding system and, over the years, have outsourced more of the fieldwork to contractors.
“This will allow me to get to grips with the management of the business and gradually shoulder the ever-increasing load of paperwork, which is crucial in achieving a smooth, unhindered succession.”
While Mr Oakes’ parents are not showing signs of retirement just yet, the aim is to take the pressure off them so they can just enjoy what they do.
“Good labour is starting to become harder to find and, as with manufacturing, it is the high standard of accuracy combined with consistency of robotic technology which is key to maximising efficiency and productivity within any industry,” Mr Oakes adds.
So, back in August 2018, a new shed situated close to the existing silage clamps was built to accommodate a feed kitchen, and two Lely Vectors were installed in mid-March.
These were the first of the new generation of Vectors to be installed in the UK.
Previously, feeding would take three to four hours every day.
Now, comfortably in the same time, the kitchen can be filled with three days’ worth of feed stored in tight blocks.
The two Vectors are mixing and dispensing six separate rations – the robotic milking group, fresh calvers, later lactation group, faroff dry cows, close-up dry cows, and bulling heifers.
The machines have the capability to feed more groups, and it is possible to programme the feeders to take up to 16 routes around the sheds.
The robotic feeders at Stublach Farm are able to feed up to 600 head, although they are not working at full capacity.
This is to take into account some shut down time when the late lactation cows are going through the milking parlour and are standing in the collecting yard area, which the machines have to travel across to access some of the cubicle sheds.
Mr Oakes says he is beginning to see good results in terms of increasing dry matter intakes and a related yield response.
“The cows can now be fed more specifically, and with fresh feed delivered and pushed up throughout the day and night, the cows are able to eat little and often,” he says.
“I can fill up the kitchen when it suits my routine, and this gets fed out as and when the cows need it.”
Mr Oakes also believes there are efficiencies to be gained from having less machinery on-farm.
“Before, feeding involved a tractor and feeder wagon, and another loader tractor. However, I was only sat on one tractor at a time,” he says.
“Now we just have a loader tractor and a block cutter.”
The running costs of the machines are now much lower, and it is estimated the Vector will cost £3.70 per day in electricity to run.
The block cutter is important to ensure stable blocks of feed are placed in the designated areas within the feed kitchen, and by storing the feed in this way it means there should be fewer problems with heating or wastage, despite being in the feed kitchen for up to three days.
Once the Vector has measured the feed height per animal group, it can send instructions to the kitchen to load and mix the required amount of feed. The rations make use of home-grown grass silage, wholecrop, rolled oats and bought-in blend and minerals.
The farm’s independent nutritionist, Will Tulley from Evidence Based Veterinary Consultancy, says the automated feeding has offered a range of advantages.
Mr Tulley says: “Anthony was under a lot of time pressure, and the system now means there have been some technical improvements – most importantly the cows being fed, and feed pushed up, more frequently.
“The accurate load sizes means there is a high degree of certainty that the ration formulated is the ration which actually goes to the cows.”
Mr Tulley adds he can also track the impact any changes might have through the link-up between the milking and feeding information.
When taking into account all the cost savings in terms of machinery, and also cost benefits regarding improved performance, Mr Oakes reckons the Vectors should pay for themselves within three to five years.
Mr Oakes says with good labour in such short supply he also wants to make the farm a good place to work, and automation will help them fulfil this goal. The farm employs a full-time herdsman, a relief milker and another full-time member of staff who is largely responsible for calf rearing and the milking robots.
“We are still milking the later lactation cows twice a day through the existing parlour, but it is taking 1.5 hours compared to four hours before we had the robots,” Mr Oakes says.